Behind the Wheel with Phil Lebeau

Ford profit warning clears the deck for 2014

Bob Shanks
Jeff Kowalsky | Bloomberg | Getty Images

After seven years of making the right moves, and shifting from losing billions of dollars to making billions of dollars, Ford Motor has thrown a curve ball at investors by issuing a profit warning for 2014.

And it's not a little drop in profits—it's a sizable hit.

Next year, Ford said it expects to bring in a pretax profit between $7 billion and $8 billion, which would be a drop of $500 million to $1.5 billion from 2013 projections.

Ford stock getting whacked

(Read more: Ford shares hammered on LatAm, Euro woes)

In outlining the change in guidance for analysts and reporters, the automaker's chief financial officer, Bob Shanks, said: "We've said all along this is not a linear business. Things do not go straight up."

Although he's right, why is Ford issuing a surprise profit warning now? After all, this is a company that, under Alan Mulally, has rarely surprised Wall Street and investors.

The answer is all about timing.

New product launch costs

Ford said the launch of 23 new models next year is one of the primary factors that will cut into profit. Launching new models, retooling plants and expanding the portfolio is costly. But for the most part, those costs have been known for some time. It's not as if Ford ordered 23 new models last week and got a bill that's much higher than expected.

In reality, sources said, one of the main issues is the cost of launching and transitioning to a new F-Series pickup.

(Read more: Mustang rides again with new model at 50)

When Shanks was asked on a conference call about whether or not the launch of a new F-Series is delayed, he answered, "We haven't said anything about a new F-Series."

True, Ford has not officially launched a new version of the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. But sources familiar with the company's plans say it is close to unveiling and launching an all-new, dramatically more fuel efficient F-Series pickup.

Getting that truck and its new, lighter-weight aluminum body panels just right is the key to determining when it will go into production.

Throw in the fact that Ford would have to take down production of the current F-Series as it transitioned to the new model, and you see why profit would take a hit. Remember, the conservative estimate among analysts is that Ford makes $7,000 profit per F-Series sold.

"We believe Ford's North America earnings deterioration is related to pricing pressure related to stale product as well as lower F-Series production in 2014," said Joe Amaturo, director of research with The Buckingham Research Group.

Is Mulally clearing the deck for Fields?

Amaturo's note also raised an interesting suggestion about the surprise profit warning: It could set the stage for Alan Mulally's departure as CEO.

"We believe this unusual earnings guidance announcement (time of year) could very well be a precursor to the early departure of Mr. Alan Mulally and likely successor Mr. Mark Fields as CEO," Amaturo wrote.

(Read more: Focus is world's best-selling car, Ford says)

Officially, Mulally and Ford have said the executive has no plans to leave the automaker before the end of 2014. At the same time, Mulally has not denied having contact with Microsoft about becoming the tech giant's new CEO.

Nomura Securities tech analyst Rick Sherlund told CNBC he is less confident Microsoft will choose Mulally to run the software firm.

But given the uncertainty of how much longer Mulally will be CEO, would Ford want to get all of the bad news out of the way before a new CEO takes over?

That narrative may have a lot of appeal, but it seems Ford's warning is more about letting Wall Street know that its profit picture is taking a bigger-than-expected hit, and letting investors know now—before a very big and uncertain 2014.

—By CNBC's Phil LeBeau. Follow him on Twitter @LeBeauCarNews.

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